The community never ceases to amaze me with creativity, ingenuity, and determination when it comes to playing Halo the way you want to play it. With Halo making a resurgence on PC with the release of Halo: Reach, modded content is coming out so fast it’s honestly hard to keep pace with what to showcase!
Today, we are going to reflect on the past, check out the current landscape of modding, and glimpse at what both the community, as well as the studio, plans for the future. Although there are many modders out there working on creative projects for Halo, we can’t focus on everyone and everything in one blog so instead I’ve picked examples from a few people for this feature. If you have favorite modders or mods, please let me know and perhaps we can spotlight them in a future article.
Welcome to our first modding blog!
HISTORY OF MODS IN HALO
Before we dive into some new hotness, let’s take a minute to reflect on some history. Modding is not something new to video games. Since the dawn of time, players have found new and unique ways to inject their own custom data (or even code) into titles to create new experiences. Fast forward to today, it’s pretty much a mandatory expectation amongst PC gamers to allow modders to tinker and bring these new pieces to the forefront for the broader community to enjoy. Personally, I remember using the Game Genie (wow I feel old) back in my youth on the NES to get different flavors of Jellybeans.
Halo has a long history of being modified, both officially and unofficially. It started, nearly 20 years ago, on the OG Xbox version of Halo: Combat Evolved and has continued to today. The explosion of new content, to bring this level of customized experience to Halo: Reach proves that players continue to love tinkering and building new ways to play in the Halo universe.
In the beginning, these mods were entirely ‘unofficial’ and often were done behind closed doors, requiring a lot of effort from those partaking, and unfortunately, violating Microsoft’s Terms of Service. Note: to this day, modifying consoles and the content on them is still against Terms of Service. This is where the PC world bridges a gap for those interested in building new experiences in Halo games.
Over time, these often-taboo Halo modding efforts were eventually supported and even encouraged. This mentality became more acceptable once the first PC version of Halo: Combat Evolved was released but was emphasized even more so with the launch of Halo “Custom Edition.” Here is a Halopedia article that covers some of the history and associated communities with Halo Custom Edition. To fully enjoy a time capsule of the history of Halo modding, just perusing halomaps.org will give you a sense of the rich modding history Halo has had over the years.
For those who played Halo 2 on Xbox, some may remember mods that were used online in matchmaking. Unfortunately, these mods were abused by many bad actors and many were banned because of these actions. As nefarious as some were, there were lots of community created mods that weren’t intended to be used online in matchmaking, but purely for fun. My favorite mod from Halo 2 still is the one where the plasma pistol shot out sticky grenades, but when fully charged, it shot out the train from the map “Terminal.” Here is a video showing off a small sampling of some old school mods from Halo 2.
While I have played Halo and many games for most of my life, I’ve not tinkered in mods myself. To learn more about the subject, I decided to interview a few folks from the modding community who have multiple years experience creating customized tools and content for others to enjoy. But before we dive into talking with the folks, let’s first talk about some resources folks might find useful, some do’s and don’ts, and general guidance on modding for Halo.
SAFELY MODDING HALO
When bringing MCC to PC, the teams building it made significant efforts to create a version that would enable folks to mod. This included an executable that disabled Easy Anti-Cheat and created a way for players to safely modify and play modified content outside of matchmaking (mods/modified content is not permitted in matchmaking). This version can be prompted when launching Halo: Reach on Steam and will disable all online play for matchmaking. It can also be used on the Microsoft Store version, but you will need to locate and launch the executable from the installation folder.
To safely use this version and not be forced to download the entire game again, we recommend creating a backup folder for all of the original game files prior to installing or attempting to build a mod. This will save time and download bandwidth when you want to play the game online again at a later date. Just remember that you’re going to be tinkering with critical game files and there’s always a risk something could go wrong, so backing everything up will save you a lot of frustration if your local install ends up in a bad state.
If you have already modified the game, but did not create a backup – Steam allows you to “Verify Integrity of Game Files” of the games which will repair all modified files if you want to play online matchmaking again. For the Microsoft Store, you will need to uninstall and reinstall the game to repair the modified content.
To learn more tips and tricks, as well as see what’s out there for modified content, check social media. One location that has been helpful is a brand new subreddit dedicated to Halo mods. This new community-run subreddit (/r/halomods) was created with the specific goal of bringing Halo modders together. It aims to take modding Halo to a new level of cohesiveness and is a space to share unique mods within the community. This ranges from mods built to create Sabre space battles, to building game modes from other games in Halo, to building new vehicles, creating new experiences on Firefight maps, playing games as Marines, and so much more.
One of the core disclaimers they have in the subreddit is one that everyone should heed:
Modding in Halo needs to be done safely and not manipulate online experiences to harm other players.
This is a reminder that modding content and trying to abuse them online is against the Microsoft Services Agreement. Modifying content and attempting to violate the previous agreement or the Community Standards for Xbox can result in permanent bans. We want everyone who has a dream to play Halo a certain way to be able to build that experience and share it with others. But please be safe in doing so. If you think something shouldn’t be done, chances are, it shouldn’t. We are currently working on drafting a new End User License Agreement to help aid in players understanding what is okay to do and what is not okay as it relates to modding content. Please feel free to ask questions and we will work to help get answers.
Now comes the time to talk with the people who actively mod Halo. The first guest is a special engineer on the Publishing Team who made a name for himself in the modding community prior to working on Halo: The Master Chief Collection on PC. I’ve talked with him, streamed with him, and spent many hours talking shop with Sean “Scoops” Cooper before, but it’s time to dive into his deep history with modding Halo.
SOME SCOOPS OF MODDING
Scoops has spent nearly two decades reverse engineering Halo from outside the studio prior to joining 343 and the Halo Publishing Team. Back in 2018, Jeff Easterling sat down with a newly-hired Scoops to interview him for the 343 Team Spotlight in the Travel Time community update.
In this very robust interview, Scoops broke down the awesome projects he worked on over the years. and how they helped forge his path to eventually landing a job on the Publishing Team here at 343 Industries. To summarize the interview simply won’t do it justice. I truly hope you go read the original HERE as it’s very worth the read.
For those who don’t want to click links and scroll further, the interview included his history of building tools for modding Halo, how his involvement and learnings from these efforts helped him land jobs in the game industry, and some conversation around how reverse engineering Halo games helps him dive into source code of the same games.
For my piece, rather than reheat the questions Scoops has already answered, I wanted to poke around and ask him about the future of modding in Halo: The Master Chief Collection and some of the goals he has about making modding Halo easier for folks that don’t have access to source code. So, let’s sit back and take a look!
Postums: Hey buddy, thanks for taking some time to chat with me about some of the work going on around modding with Halo!
Scoops: It has been a little bit and I always enjoy sharing some of the finer details when I can.
Let’s dive on in: what are some of the goals you have achieved in helping make modding easier for the community since you joined the team?
S: That’s a bit of a hard question to answer, as not all goals have been deployed yet! My focus on modding has been for Halo Wars 1 & 2, plus MCC. I did a lot of documentation on reverse engineering various Halo Wars file formats before joining 343 (in the process of getting everything moved over to github right now). Before I started at 343 I had also worked on a tool to disassemble and then re-assemble game variants (aka game types) for Reach and Halo 4 so people could modify the “megalo” script data that’s found in them.
(Here is an older video of some of the modified content Scoops worked on for HaloCE)
For those not familiar, Reach and Halo 4 basically used scripts to create modes like CTF, Race, Invasion, Dominion, etc. In prior Halo games, they were hard coded in C++. Well, that tool was not Windows 10 ready, was entirely command line, was closed source, and had a few other issues.
So recently, I spent some free time to finish porting that code to some open source projects and releasing a GUI version of the tool to make it a little easier to work with. It would be cool to someday be able to share the official MegaloEdit tools for the games, but the logistics of how possible that would be are still being figured out. We make no promises, but we’re not just sitting around doing nothing, either.
Besides that, I try to answer engine questions where I can. People have some really far out there modding ideas, so I try to ground some things in reality.
What are some things you would love to focus on if time permits?
S: Too many things to note, some of which I would not go on the record as saying because I’m sure someone will read it as “343 is definitely doing X…where is X?? it’s been a week already!”.
So, I’ve got to work on a bunch of networking issues and solutions (esp. for Halo: Reach Firefight). I’m hoping as the remaining MCC PC games roll out to be able to not only take some of the optimizations I made in Reach back to other games, but also some of the networking changes we made to support asynchronous Player-vs-Enemy to other games. Many modders have realized AI now sync in MP games. This is thanks to the asynchronous Firefight work we did. So, it would be cool to bring this functionality to Halo 2 and up, even when those games don’t have Firefight. Yes, I excluded Halo 1 because at this point in time it doesn’t even share the same networking and simulation architecture that was laid out starting in Halo 2. Bringing this support to the other games I think could help promote some of the crazier ideas people have had. And that’s how my time, or any engineer’s time, is best utilized: writing code that empowers others to do their work.
I’m wanting to take more content to human readable files (JSON/XML) instead of just opaque binary files. I’m wanting to improve error handling so when the mod makers venture out in some wild ideas to try and do things, we’re a little more resilient in our handling of things.
And of course, tools. What kinds of tools? Whatever we can work out the logistics of.
If you could give one piece of advice to those who are looking to build mods for Halo, what would it be?
S: Wear sunscreen. But just as important, be kind to your fellow mod makers and share your findings. It really pains me to see people get holier-than-thou with their abilities to use tools, often made by the community, to mod the games or hold back information that would allow others to prosper. I keep a poo-poo list of people I see doing this. I have no desire to help them, because they are not helping the community engage in healthy development. Just as how people can be jerks or ruin games on XBL. In my opinion, what Phil Spencer wrote about earlier this year doesn’t just apply to video games, but also modding video games.
(Scoops showcasing the HCE OpenSauce mod tool)
The people you help or find in the community could be your next co-creator on a really cool modding project. Those same people could end up helping you land a gig in the games industry if that’s what you desire. It’s crucial to be able to work and develop well with others. Having projects that are not just solo works of art can help exemplify this. The games industry is all about networking too. A lot of times, we end up in the places we do because we know someone already there and they can help vouch for us or aid to make us stand out from the rest.
Thank you for your time, Scoops. I know modding is a passion of yours and both you and the Publishing Team have all sorts of ambitious ideas for things you hope to someday bring to MCC. In the meantime, it’s exciting to see what the community has already done on their own. Something tells me that we’re just getting started.
Out of many of the mods players have made, most focus on the mechanics of interacting with objects or the way you play within the world you are in. This next individual has made a name for himself by exposing Halo to a new medium – virtual reality or “VR.”
Postums: Some people reading may have already seen an article come out on some of the things you are working on. But for those who don’t know you, let’s introduce who you are and what you do.
Nibre: Thank you Postums for reaching out. For those who don’t know me; hi, my name is Zack Fannon, though most people online know me as Nibre. I’m a Software Developer with experience in reverse engineering, and an insatiable urge to learn all I can about how my favorite Halo games work at a technical level. I also have a background in Virtual Reality development, where my work on MotherVR (a VR mod for the game Alien Isolation) has even been featured on sites like DigitalTrends, RoadToVR, and Engadget. Some people may recognize me from the teasers I’ve been Tweeting recently for ReclaimerVR, a new Halo mod I’ve been working on that aims to bring VR support to MCC PC.
Over the years you have worked on mods for lots of things. Tell us, what is your core history of modding in terms of Halo?
N: I have been modding Halo off-and-on ever since Halo PC was released back in the day, when the modding community frequented the Gearbox and Halomods forums. A lot of the concepts were brand new to me, so I was mainly watching what others were doing and learning the basics of how Halo works and is put together. After enjoying mods that other people had created, I started modding myself, with simple texture swaps and tweaking of tag fields. With Halo Custom Edition I moved on to figuring out how to do campaign-to-multiplayer tag conversions, custom models, custom animations, and Halo scripting. Because it was more of a hobby for me, I didn’t really release any mods back then, as I enjoyed just learning everything I could and following along with the community.
Afterward I also dabbled with modding Halo 2 and Halo 2 Vista, though not to the extent I could with Halo Custom Edition, due to the superior developer tools it had available. It was really interesting to see how Bungie had changed and improved the engine since Halo 1, and how the community modding tools expanded on what was learned with the previous game. For the next few years I’d check in on what was new with Halo modding every once in a while, but for the most part I was focused on just playing the newer Halo games. I got back into modding Halo seriously again around the time that MCC was announced, and it was revealed to have scores of new achievements, focusing on some lesser-known easter eggs and speedrunning times. This really sparked my curiosity, and my new modding focus, rather than creating new content, was to analyze the game data to try and figure out all of the aspects of the lesser-known things in the games, and to use what I learned to discover new things and build new tools.
Eventually, this lead me into befriending the Halo Speedrunning community, HaloRuns, of which I am now also an Administrator.
Generally I’ve acted as a sounding board for new theoretical speedrunning ideas in the community, based on what should be technically possible, and have helped create brand new tricks and strategies inspired by what I have found in the back end of the games. I’ve had a large part in helping develop RNG Manipulation, High Charity Skip, and Arbitrary Unit Possession, among other things. If you haven’t seen A.U.P. yet, you should really checkout the recent videos by MisterMonopoli, HarcTheShark, and DrBizz, as it’s a brand new trick in Halo 2 that was always technically possible, and it truly resembles some of the silly ‘Golden Warthog’ myths from back in the day.
Along with my HaloRuns shenanigans since MCC was released, I had an ulterior motive for digging into the games and figuring out everything I could: I really, really wanted to play the classic Halo games in VR. At the time, I had just started developing things for the Oculus DK1 and then DK2, so I was eager to virtually explore the colossal environments of Halo. This obviously wouldn’t be possible to do on the original games themselves, so I used what I was learning to start working on a makeshift Halo VR world-viewer, built with Unreal Engine 4. After working on it off-and-on for a year or two, I had a good proof-of-concept that worked with Halo 2 and Halo 3 maps, though it required a bit more pre-processing to get the data in a UE4 useable form than I’d like. It was a good experimental learning project to keep coming back to and improving on but wasn’t really prepared for a release yet.
Later on, I found myself working on MotherVR, my VR mod for the game Alien Isolation. If I could expand my programming chops by getting this game working in VR again, without the game’s source code, could that somehow help me on my quest towards getting Halo working in VR? Long story short, it turns out that it honestly did. Reverse engineering a game from absolute scratch helped me see the Halo games in a new light when I’d come back to them, and revisiting MotherVR again afterward really helped me push my understanding of code at an assembly level further and further. By the time MCC PC eventually was announced, I knew that I’d have to get a game-plan ready for how I was going to tackle what came to be ReclaimerVR, and perhaps finally accomplish my 5 year goal.
That is a lot of different things to be focusing on and some pretty astounding experiences. For the future of your mods, what are you really focused on and hoping to achieve in the world of Halo?
N: My primary modding goal right now is to keep working on and improving my ReclaimerVR mod, continually adding support for each of the new MCC titles as they’re released. My secondary goal is to continue assisting you (in the ways that I can) with the process of bringing MCC over to PC. Whether that be by taking part in the public dialogue that you guys are having, regarding how you can better support the Halo modding community, or by helping to fix random things in the games that got messed up during their transition to MCC, that can now be revisited. I want to make sure that I’m putting everything that I’ve learned over all of these years to some good use, so that MCC can be all that it can and should be (..though I know of a more direct way I could help with that.. *cough* *cough* ;P ). My tertiary goal is to finally finish up a fun modding video I’ve been working on, that has a deep technical dive into one of the mysteries in Halo 2, that I think a lot of people will get a kick out of.
Do you happen to have any videos you would like to share so people can see some of the things you have been working on?
N: Not too long ago, I shared a sneak peak at some of the stuff I’ve been working on. In case folks missed it, here’s the tweet!
Our next series of modders have been contributing to the scene for quite some time. These guys have been tinkering and creating fun, unique custom experiences within Halo since well before the recent release of Reach on PC.
Postums: Hello Zeddikins, long time no chat!
Zeddikins: Hi Postums, thank you for “Reaching” out to me. Can we end the puns yet?
Oh, I think we’re just getting started, and end scene. All jokes aside, for the folks who don’t know who you are, please tell me a little bit about yourself?
Z: I’m Zeddikins, or Zedd for short. You might recognize me better as “Lord Zedd” or “ddeZ droL” if you’ve spent some quality time in Reach or Halo 4’s Forge. I’ve been around for almost a decade now spearheading a lot of the Halo modding advancements and research used today.
So, Lord Zedd, with having so much history with Halo under your belt, what are some of the things you have accomplished in the world of mods for Halo?
Z: I’ve been around modding since 2006 being a noob with Halo 2 on Xbox but I usually consider 2011 as the point where I started actively trying to learn about the engine and how things work. I developed a drive to contribute wherever and however I could to modding the 360 games. I started with naming tags in Reach and mapping out tag layouts (plugins). This would continue to mid-2012 when I was contacted about a new program some friends were working on which would eventually become Assembly. I provided feedback and plugins, since at the time I still had very little knowledge of even Visual Basic. As the years went on, I tried more things, like learning PowerPC to get the Halo 3 and Reach betas playable again, and putting tags from one map to another (“tag injection”) and got more familiar with C# to develop my own tools. Now here I am being interviewed about modding by the creators of Halo.
For those of us not in the modding scene, what do you mean when you say plugins?
Z: Plugins in a modding tool is what gives names to the bits and bytes inside a tag, sort of a blueprint. I would just start changing random values and observe any effects. It was a manual process for a while until it was realized you could dump official layouts from the Halo 1/2 Editing Kits and later on Halo 5: Forge. Such information can be extrapolated for the games in between.
That’s some pretty interesting stuff. What would you say your biggest goals are for mods with the future of Halo?
Z: There is still work to be done with Assembly, but besides that I’ve got a camera tool in the works that should tide people over until Theater drops on PC. Ultimately, I hope Halo modding gets big on PC and I may or may not have other tricks up my sleeve for the future to aid in that.
I can’t wait to see what you come up with next to help folks break into mods and all of the creative stuff the community makes. Rather than just simply talk about modding, do you happen to have one video to showcase your favorite content you’ve worked on?
Z: Well as I mentioned I’m working on a camera tool, so I thought I’d share how that’s shaping up by showing off some of its current features
Another long time modder who has been all over the scene in Halo is Gamecheat13. I’ve had the pleasure of talking with him over the past few years and hearing about some of the crazy things he has done, wants to do, and is already working on. You may not know him or his plans, so let’s hear what he has to say!
Postums: I think your warthog driving skills have worn off onto me. I ran over too many teammates in December and each time I thought of you my good sir.
Gamecheat13: Did the thought of me turn sour after you received a matchmaking ban? haha
Thankfully they didn’t boot me! Well, for the folks who don’t know you, please take some time to tell me a little bit about yourself. Who are you sir?
G: I’m Gamecheat. I’ve been around for a while, dipping into a few different communities. I’m mostly known for doing a bunch of Halo shenanigans.
With being around for quite some time, what has been your history of modding in the Halo community?
G: My start with Halo modding was all the way back in 2008ish if I’m remembering correctly. Messing with Halo Trial and modifying Halo 3 gamesaves with an X-Sata. Most of the stuff I did during that time isn’t worth mentioning. I didn’t start digging deeper into the game until Assembly was in development. During that time, it seemed like every other week there was a new feature added by the team. At the time I was just trying out things that interested me: campaign to multiplayer conversions, campaign Forge, AI tweaks, first person assassinations. If something seemed fun enough to pursue, I’d go at it. A good bit of this was uploaded to my Youtube channel. Later on, I worked on some more focused projects like AI Battles, H3 Campaign Forge, <redacted>, and Exuberant.
That all sounds pretty cool and a great way to really break into making your own custom spins on Halo. Where do you want to go with modding in the future? What are some of your plans for modding with Halo going forward?
G: I plan to port most of the mods I did on the Xbox 360 to PC eventually. I really want to trend new ground with this PC release now that the engine supports AI synchronization in multiplayer. I would like to setup some tutorials and a modding wiki to make it easier for new modder.
With what you want to do and what you have been doing quite recently, I’ve heard you were able to work with combat AI to effectively create Warzone in Halo: Reach. How is that shaping up and what are some interesting things you have been unraveling to make that happen?
G: Calling it Warzone was a good way to sell it, even though its much less than that. It’s the firefight map Unearthed converted to run in customs/Forge. I’ve added most of the Forge World items to the Forge palette. Along with a few more custom items like the Phantom, Combat Knife, and Jackal Shield. All tweaked to be sandbox ready. You can build whatever map you would like; it supports all gametypes. On the map there are about 15 AI characters, 10 covenant and 5 UNSC. There will always always be around 15 AI on the map, when one dies another will spawn as a random character. The enemies will fight each other and you. The AI have been buffed a good bit too, given they could be facing around 16 players. These AI are properly placed on the map allowing them to do most of the things they would in campaign, they aren’t pushovers. You will be hunted and have your vehicles stolen.
The map initially just started as a test for AI syncing, but I just can’t help myself. I just kept adding more features. In Forge you have the option to disable each team, allowing you to create a map in peace. Hopefully in the future I’ll find a way to save an option to disable AI in the Forge savegame. I’m mostly done with this mod, what I’d like to build next is custom Firefight made for custom games. Imagine having 16 players fighting to be the last one alive? I’ve got a few other ideas utilizing friendly AI in firefight but I’ll reveal that when its working, I’ve already said too much.
Thank you so much for stopping by and sharing some great details about all of the things you have worked on!
THE LAST WORD WITH FARNS
With all of this talk from those who are building mods, creating tools to help with modding, and all of the cool things being created in the community – I thought it best to wrap up with, Michael Fahrny, the Senior Producer, of the Publishing Team here at 343. This is the team responsible in maintaining and building Halo: The Master Chief Collection.
Postums: Hey Fahrny, long time no chat? It’s been a minute since we’ve been able to sit down and catch up on some of the cool things the team is working on behind the scenes!
Fahnry: For modding, we’re very much still dipping our toes in the water. I have some long term goals to empower the modding community more than they already are, but I’m not quite ready to go into details yet on that. For now, we’re in between Step 1 & 2 that way I see it:
- Release Reach and support the modding community where we can with the existing community made tools while answering questions on what we currently can.
- One of the most important things we must do for modding to be sustainable long term in MCC is set up some ground rules and guard rails. The first step in this is to setup a proper EULA that clearly defines what we will support being done while also maintaining the integrity of our game service and protected environments (think matchmaking). We started working on this back in November and are taking some queues for our friends on the Minecraft team and how they formed their EULA. A draft of this is in review with our legal group now.
- Once we have the EULA in place, we’ll be able to make a solid plan around what potential tools our team can commit to and prioritize work around them.
Step 4 & Beyond
- This will all depend on how much success we have in Steps 1-3 and how much desire there is from the community to grow modding.
Postums: Now why did you have to go and tell them all that. RIP my DMs dude…. Anyways, I wanted to grab you and talk a little bit about some of your background. I think first, let’s start off with what your modding history looks like when it comes to building and supporting games in the industry.
F: From a career perspective, I’ve not really had the opportunity to officially support mods in many of the games I’ve worked on. My background has a lot of XBLA/PSN, some PC, and mobile titles where the ecosystem wasn’t really mod friendly. From a consumer standpoint though, the games I tend to gravitate to the most and have the highest longevity for me as a player are games that have modding support and good modding community around them. It’s important to me as a player and I can finally bring that with me into MCC.
What are the key pieces you feel are necessary from us to help enable even more robust modding amongst the community?
F: I think they key is lowering the barrier of entry as much as we can to not only enable people to make mods, but also to allow less technical people to manage their mods. The current ways can be complicated and lead to people getting themselves into bad states, it’s just not good for long term modding health. More official tools, things like Steam Workshop support, etc. are the best path forward.
Do you believe there is a world where we enable end users to monetize their mods in the Steam Workshop?
F: We are talking about this and not fundamentally against it, but it will come down to what we’re legally able to allow (back to Step 2).
What are your favorite mods you have had a chance to play thus far?
F: Sigh, I really wish I had time to play more with them, but I’ve been so busy with working on the other titles I just haven’t had much time to dedicate other than conversations with that community. I will say though, the most fun I’ve had is in Gamecheat13’s “Warzone.” Here are a few links to some cool content we’ve come across since we released Halo: Reach on PC in December.
Which Halo game within MCC are you most excited to see modded and what specifically are you interested in the community making for it? I’m waiting for them to make an ODST Battle Royale, but this definitely isn’t me plugging the community to go forth and make it happen.
F: You and I are pretty aligned here, ODST is actually my favorite Halo and I can’t wait to see what they do with it.
Thank you so much for the breakdown of what you and the team are interested in bringing to the modding scene for Halo. I know folks are very excited and are looking forward to all of the fun things to come with MCC on PC. Until next time folks, thank you for your time and we will see you all online!